Edwards on a Mission to Make This World a Better Place
Dec. 3, 2012
CHICAGO - Drew Edwards' life was never the same after a barefoot 13-year-old boy challenged him to a race.
This was no ordinary "on-your-marks, get-set, go." No, this outdoor sprint took place at a war-torn refugee camp in Uganda where Edwards, who would become a 400-meter track athlete at DePaul, was on a relief mission in January of 2009.
Edwards nosed out Abraham in a race that marked the beginning of a fast friendship. One day, Abraham invited Edwards to his hut.
"It was strange because no one else was there," Edwards said. "Every other hut had a bunch of people sharing it. I asked about his family. He said soldiers had come, taken all the men in the camp including his father, and killed them. They took his mother and sister outside and asked them to wear either a short sleeve or mid-sleeve top. Where ever the sleeve ended, that's where they'd cut off your arm. His mom was raped and killed.
"Abraham was abducted and forced to become a child soldier. The soldiers would take these children through the bushes, and if they didn't run fast enough, they'd be killed. They were taught how to kill, and it was a matter of kill or be killed.
"At some point, Abraham managed to escape and ran for his life at night through the jungle. He ran for hours and hours barefoot through the bush country. And there were all these natural dangers like lions and other predators. No wonder the kids who survived became such fast runners. It's amazing he found his way back to the camp.
"After I heard his story, I asked Abraham: `What can I do for you?' He said: `Can you help me pay for my school fees?' I gathered up as much money as I had and paid his fees for one year. And then, he just wanted to pray with me.
"I began to realize the impact of just being there for somebody. If you told Abraham he could have anything in the world---he would say education."
More than three years later, Edwards and the Blue Demon track and field team open the season on Friday at the Blue and Gold Invitational indoor meet at Notre Dame.
As team captain, Edwards is looking forward to a memorable senior season competing alongside such talented teammates as Ashley Holden, Loreal Curtis and Ayesha Ewing on the women's team and Tonderai Tomu, Matt Babicz and Adam Kovacs on the men's team.
Somehow, Edwards will find the time to run track, hit the books and run a nonprofit organization that empowers students and unifies communities through education.
This is a story about a 21-year-old visionary who went on volunteer trips three times to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina and will make his fourth trip to Uganda next summer heading up Pangea Educational Development's (PED) valiant effort to rebuild a culture after a brutal 20-year civil war.
"Drew is just cut from a different cloth," said DePaul Associate Athletic Director Kathryn Statz. "He is such a collaborator, a big-picture guy who sees things in a different way.
"He is like St. Vincent de Paul in that way. He sees things on a large scale and works with a lot of people to go a long way, much as St. Vincent did.
"Drew has been blessed with amazing listening skills and is so eager to learn about other people. In a world where so many people like to talk, he loves to listen and learn.
"He is the kind of person that will do something really amazing in the next 10 years, and we'll all be reading about him."
Hockey was the original passion of a youngster growing up in Rochester, Mich. who began running in marathons while in high school and developed into an all-state performer in track.
Even back then, Edwards was searching for something more. After graduating high school, he took a year off from school and joined the Youth With A Mission organization on a two-month service trip to Uganda.
"I had an awakening to the idea of displacement," Edwards said. "I saw a documentary of Uganda with all the displacement because of war and conflict. Throughout Africa's longest armed conflict, 30,000 children and 66,000 adults were abducted. More than 1.7 million were displaced from their homes and 100,000 were killed.
"These people were refugees in their own country, relocated to Internal Displaced Persons camps. Abducted children 10-to-15 years old would be forced to become child soldiers.
"I had to find a way to make education more accessible. I had to find a way to allow people to change the world around them."
After his one-year hiatus, Edwards was getting ready to register for classes at a college in Ohio when he realized he wanted something more. This wasn't the place for him. There had to be a place where he could do more. That's when he came to DePaul.
He joined the track team as a walk-on, and a community-service scholarship helped pay for his college education. In 2010, Edwards, fellow DePaul student Kevin Oh and Flossmoor grade-school teacher Andrew Bauer founded PED after meeting on a service trip to Uganda.
To accommodate the demands of fund-raising, marketing and operating Pangea, the three cofounders moved into a Wrigleyville apartment that was quickly nicknamed "PED-Quarters" and became a home for huge white boards, calendars and business meetings with their staff of 15 volunteer workers while also communicating with two paid staff members in Uganda.
"Going into my junior season, I began to re-evaluate my time commitments to track," Edwards said. "As PED continued expanding, there was less time for everything. It was a growing challenge. While I was in Uganda in 2011 on my second visit there, I reflected on it.
"I decided I couldn't walk away from track. It's a part of who I am. The administration, staff and coaches in the athletic department have given me such tremendous support. I sat down with coach Dave Dopek and said I'd be here for my last two seasons and wanted to make the most of it.
"I'm not your typical dominant athlete who gets elected team captain. Coach Dopek said it's easy to be a leader because of physical prowess, and it's a lot tougher to do it in every other way. It was an honor to go from walk-on to captain."
On recent trips to Uganda, Edwards and his volunteers built a bathroom, a foundation for a new school, playground equipment, a soccer field and purchased textbooks for the St. James Elementary School. At another school, Pangea built an internet café to help provide sustainable resources.
At Tooro High School, the PED volunteers constructed a chicken coop with the chickens' eggs providing a source of income. PED provided school supplies, redesigned the girls' dormitories and the school's administrative office, purchased new jerseys and equipment for the soccer team and held a movie night.
After Edwards graduates from DePaul next June with a degree in International Studies, he is moving to Uganda. One of the schools there has asked him to become its track coach.
"Sports has a way of overcoming all types of adversity from that 20-year war period," Edwards said. "Through sports, you can re-establish respect for another human being.
"That's what brought me to DePaul---that I can try to create justice through service. What I wanted to be around is exactly what St. Vincent de Paul is all about."
To help sustain its mission, PED launched a shoe campaign last year taking up collections at colleges and high schools. Selling them for $1 a pair in Uganda where shoes are expensive raised more than $15,000.
American Airlines sponsors soccer jerseys for the Ugandan schools. Pangea has received grants from Edelman and Chase Bank. The dream is to one day secure a major sponsor.
"We are creative with our fundraising," Edwards said. "There is tremendous support from family and friends and people who believe in our cause. We do it by living it. Donors can see we are more innovative. We have a 94 percent donation rate.
"Our goal in Uganda is to work towards making sure that education is accessible to every child. It is our hope that they grow up to be leaders in their communities and that they change their environment.
"Eventually we want to see if this concept can work in other countries. We would like to go global, but we'll be just as happy if it works in Uganda."